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This question is very similar to this one. However, I felt it was different enough, and I also did not find an answer.

In the tale I am currently writing, a girl, whose parents have both been long dead, is talking with her adoptive father. I'm having trouble referring to him.

Normally a name is what would be used. However, I don't want to use a name because the girl thinks of the father as her actual father (She knows he isn't her true father, but loves him as if he were). It's the same relationship. Therefore, referring to him by name would just be weird.

Simply using 'father' would be the next option, except I don't want to do that. The reader does not yet know that the father is not the girl's actual father. Therefore, I don't want to refer to him as the girl's father, because when I reveal the truth, that could get confusing (This question is actually the main bridging conflict, so I can't really remove it).

The father has a daughter of his own (referred to here as 'Y'), so I've been referring to him as Y's father. This has worked, but I have nothing else to call him, and the repetition is showing. Removing taglines (the scene is mostly dialogue) and utilizing pronouns has helped some, but I can't use them everywhere.

How can I refer to this character, who is too familiar to be referred to by name?

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6 Answers 6

up vote 5 down vote accepted

If the story is told from the perspective of the girl, either in first or third person, she will think of him as her father and that is what you must call him, anything else will feel contrived.

Only if you are not writing from the perspective of the girl, but from an omniscient or neutral standpoint, can and should you use terms that she would not use herself or avoid any terms completely.

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The girl knows he is not her true father. She loves him as if he were. – Tommy Myron Feb 24 at 21:02
Sorry, got confused by your description. If she thinks of him as her father, then she thinks of him as her father, and if you tell the story from her perspective, that is what you must call him. I don't understand your question. – what Feb 25 at 8:41
The story is third person from the perspective of the girl, but there are of necessity times when I, the narrator, refer to him as well. Everything is not the girl's thoughts or speech. – Tommy Myron Feb 25 at 18:59
Who's your 'true' father? Your biological one, or the one who raised you? – Tanath Feb 25 at 22:39
@what My dilemma was that calling him the girl's father will make the reader assume he is her father. When I reveal later on that he is, in reality, not her biological father, there is the potential for confusion ("but I thought he said..."). That is what I was attempting to avoid. Do you think the reader would not be confused if I called him her father? – Tommy Myron May 18 at 4:59

So, this is a third person narrative, and character X knows that Y is not her real father, but the reader doesn't?

I would go with language that matches what the reader knows --i.e., refer to him as "X's father" until you're ready for the reveal.

If it's true third person, you could just call him by his first name, but I can understand if you want to stay a little closer to X's perspective than that.

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If you are quoting the girl, or writing from her perspective, than you should have her say what she would say if this was real life. The fact that a statement isn't true (in whatever sense) doesn't mean a character in the story shouldn't say it if that is what the character would say in real life. To take an extreme example, if I was writing a story in which the villain is pretending to be a policeman to gain access to a certain place, I'd have him say, "I'm a policeman and I need to get in here." I certainly wouldn't have him say, "I'm pretending to be a policeman to trick you into letting me in here." Obviously someone trying to trick people wouldn't just admit it.

If a reader is confused by characters telling lies or saying things that they think are true but which the reader knows are not, then either you've done it poorly or the reader isn't smart enough to read this book. Or if you are trying to create a mystery, where you lead the reader to believe that X is true and then later reveal that it is not, then the red herring is the whole point. If you give it away before the intended reveal, you've messed up the story.

Where I see a potential problem is if you are writing from the third person. If you write, "Alice brought Bob to meet her boyfriend. 'This is my father', she said." This just tells the reader that Alice SAID he was her father. If that's what she would say in context, whether true or not, the story is fair. But if you write, "Alice brought her father to meet her boyfriend", and then later reveal that he is not her father, a reader could object that you lied to him. But of course if you write, "Alice brought the man she thought was her father to meet her boyfriend", this is a dead give-away that he is not her father. That's the case where you have to find something else to call him. I'd think using a name would be the easy way out. Let the narrator always call him by name even if the character calls him "father" or "daddy" or whatever. I don't think any reader would find it odd that the narrator uses a name while the character uses a title or relationship.

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If it's 3rd person limited perspective then your narrator knows the truth but is deliberately withholding it from the reader. You will have to tread very carefully with that. The reveal would have justify the deception.

Your alternative is to hide it in plain sight. Have the girl call her father by name (it does happen in real life), but have a scene where her father complains about this so you can misdirect the reader into thinking the issue between them isn't genetics, but increasing separation or some such.

'Thanks, Joe.'

'I miss the days you called me Dad.'

'Sorry, I just grew out of it.'

'Is this a modern thing? Most daughters never grow out if it.'

'In what ways am I like "most daughters"?'

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I would use synomymouses for father, for excemple dad, daddy or father. If you use more languages in your story you can also use the words for father from both languages, language A for one and language B for the other.

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Having your character calling the man raising her father isn't a problem. She knows he's not her biological dad but as far as she is concerned, he is her father and will call him as such.

Where you seem to be having trouble is the reveal that he is in fact not who you have said he is.

There are various ways this can be done depending on the type of story you're trying to tell.

There's the obvious flashpoint. "You're not my dad!"

There's the more subtle method (using someone elses example of meeting the boyfriend) of "You don't look like your dad." "He's not my real dad. My parents died when I was young."

Obviously, the different methods will have different outcomes and speaking from what I've observed hearing "you're not my dad" is one of the worst thing any man can hear from a child he has done his best to raise.

Whichever method you choose, you can have hints to lead up to it if you don't want it to be a complete surprise. The girl could have a picture of her birth mum and dad on their wedding day but her dad's description is totally different to that of her father. If the parents died together she could have newspaper clippings of that day.

A lot can be done but most of it will depend on what the plot of your story is and where you want to take it.

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